I freely admit that I’m against the mandatory labeling of foodstuffs. GMO foods have been studied extensively with no indication whatsoever that they pose any threat to human health. In fact you can make the case that some GMO foods are safer because by preventing insect damage by corn borers and corn rootworms the corn plant remains healthier. Healthy plants are less susceptible to plant fungi, and some of the toxins produced by these fungi are highly carcinogenic. Although it won’t be enforced for some months, Vermont’s GMO labeling law began on July 1st. While there’s reasonable hope that the U.S. House of Representatives will approve a reasonable national GMO labeling bill, then hash things out with the Senate and finally have the President sign it, in the meantime we’re seeing the initial reaction of food manufacturers to the Vermont labeling law. At last count food manufacturers have pulled over 3000 food products from Vermont shelves, apparently concluding that it’s not worth re-labeling their products for the relatively small market that Vermont represents. So at least temporarily, these food manufacturers are voting with their feet and are exiting Vermont.
Looking at long-term U.S. alfalfa yield trends can be depressing since there’s been so little increase over the decades. Not that there hasn’t been any, but it pales compared to the tremendous yield gains of corn and soybeans. Genetic improvements in alfalfa quality have also been very slow in arriving, in great part because of the stubborn linkage between yield and forage quality. N-R-G, the variety developed and released by Cornell University, is a good example. It offered higher forage quality, but at the expense of yield. Looking at its performance in alfalfa variety trials was discouraging…and university plant breeders acknowledged how difficult it is to break that yield/quality linkage.
However, it now appears that new alfalfa varieties have recently been released that combine reliably higher forage quality with equal or better yields. These are reduce-lignin varieties, and anyone who know anything about ruminant nutrition realizes that while some lignin is needed to keep plants upright, too much reduces intake and therefore animal performance. These new alfalfas–and there are both GMO and conventionally-bred varieties available–accumulate lignin at a slower rate, so at the early bloom stage have about as much as “normal” varieties at the late bud stage. This means that farmers have another 5 to 7 days for the alfalfa to grow (and increase yield). It also means more time for it to accumulate root reserves, which should have an impact on stand life. One of the more significant results may be a reduction in the number of harvests per season. One fewer harvest means less labor, fuel, equipment wear and tear–and less crown-damaging wheel traffic. Time will tell, but at this point higher seed cost appears to be about the only drawback to reduced-lignin varieties. We still have a lot to learn about managing these varieties including whether cool-season forage grasses can be growth with them, but so far, so good.
I’m continually impressed–sometimes amazed–at the progress plant breeders have been making, especially in the past 20 years or so, in developing varieties and hybrids with new and/or improved characteristics. Two cases in point: The ability of corn hybrids to tolerate less-than-ideal soil moisture conditions, and alfalfa varieties–both genetically modified and produced by “traditional” plant breeding techniques–with reduced/delayed lignin development.
In the case of corn’s ability to tolerate dry conditions it’s sneaked up on us: Both Monsanto and Dupont-Pioneer have been working hard at developing hybrids with this trait, but if you look at the ability of corn hybrids in general–not ones designated as “drought tolerant”–you’d see that plant breeders have been making progress in this characteristic for many, many years. Today’s hybrids not only have the ability to produce more corn grain per unit of nitrogen fertilizer, but to do so under tougher growing conditions than those of grand-daddy’s day. And when adequate moisture is present, the drought-tolerant hybrids will produce just as well as those lacking this trait.
I’m also optimistic about the impact that reduced lignin alfalfa varieties will have, particularly where alfalfa is grown in monoculture–no grass companion crop. These varieties have been shown to yield at least as well as conventional varieties, and in a way may be a step back in time since delayed harvest may result in one fewer cutting per year. That means less fuel, less labor, and–let’s not underestimate this–less wheel traffic damage. In fact, some midwest research has found that the reduced-lignin alfalfa actually yields more in three cuts than conventional varieties do in four. It’s still early, but so far reduced lignin appears to be a winner, with the only downside significantly higher seed cost. But spread over three or four years this price premium might seem like small change.
There’s difference of opinion on the primary cause–long-term climate cycles or man-made global warming, but there’s no question that our climate has changed, and quickly enough that it should be noticeable to anyone with even a few grey hairs. That’s because there’s been significant, measured change in our climate just since 1990, a mere 26 years. The average dates of first and last frost have changed by 4 to 5 days, with an earlier last frost in the spring, and a later first frost in the fall. However, the change hasn’t been equal across the U.S., which should surprise nobody. In the Eastern U.S. the increased length of our growing season has increased by less than half as much–2 days at most. However, first and last frost dates don’t describe in-season temperature changes, and as you might expect these have also increased.
What does this mean for farmers? If you’re still planting the same crop maturities, particularly corn and soybeans, that you were 20 years ago it might be time to re-evaluate. Cornell University has found that the ideal maturity rating of soybean varieties for a particular area of the state is later than when in a previous evaluation. Therefore, if, for instance, you’ve been planting Group 1.2 maturity soybeans for many years you should give some consideration to a slightly later variety–perhaps Group 1.5 maturity. Or if you’ve been planting 95 RM corn hybrids, considering a move to 98 RM hybrids for at least a portion of your acreage, This assumes, of course that you’ve been able to mature the crops without difficulty, year in and year out–which especially in the case of corn harvested for silage, is NOT always the case. Because it’s still better to plant hybrids that will reliably mature on your farm, under your management, than to shoot for the moon and wind up with an immature crop.
We’re headed to St. Thomas for a week of family sun and fun including a day of deep sea fishing. We’re also heading into “Zika territory”, since St. Thomas is one of the Virgin Islands where the Zika virus has been confirmed. This doesn’t particularly concern me since none of our family is pregnant, or considering it. One of the proposed methods for confronting Zika is by developing, raising, and releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the infested areas. These insects would breed with the native population of mosquitoes but the resulting progeny would die before they reach adulthood and become a potential disease vector. This isn’t simply theory–the genetically modified mosquitoes have already been developed and there have been some trial releases. There’s a concern that we don’t know the impact this would have on the species that feed on these mosquitoes, particularly birds. Would the genetically modified mosquitoes only impact the one or two species that carry the Zika virus? We know the immediate goal, but how about those infamous “unintended consequences”? That’s how an intentionally-introduced species, kudzu, would up infesting the southeastern U.S.
That said, the human impact of Zika is so terrible, primarily devastating birth defects, that in this case I think that some level of risk is acceptable. Insects have shown a remarkable ability to withstand almost any attempts at eradication–in fact, I’m not sure that any insect has been completely eradicated though one particular species of ladybugs might be the exception. I admit that I’m “pro-biotech” but in this case think it’s something that many people who are normally on the fence would accept.
The new year begins with a cold snap in the East, horrific floods in the Midwest, plummeting stock prices both here and globally, a presidential primary race that’s somewhere between high drama and low comedy, and as noted in my previous post, the impending merger of two of the biggest seed companies in the world. So far I haven’t read much in the popular press about the Dupont-Dow merger, but there’s been some concern expressed about reduced competition having an impact on seed prices. Perhaps, but in my opinion it won’t be great. Short-term it appears that there won’t be much change in the prices of seed corn or most forage seed for 2016 though this has nothing to do with the merger. Both dairy farmers and cash crop producers aren’t in a particularly good cash position as we head into the new year, though it appears that milk prices may soon increase enough to put many if not most dairies back into the black. Prices of 2016 cash crops, particularly grain corn, are of course as yet unknown but some scarily low prices are being mentioned by market analysts. Of course low grain prices are good for livestock producers–can’t make everyone happy.
I’m hopeful that this year will see some action on a national basis regarding the labeling of GMO foods. (By “action” I mean a decision, not simply more contentious lobbying on both sides of the issue.) My preference is no labeling, but the technology is there to have food labels contain much, much more consumer information than it presently does. The question is if the additional information would be worth what it would cost the food manufacturers to do so–a cost that would certainly be passed down to consumers. One can always hope…
One of the big news stories is the impending merger of Dupont-Pioneer and Dow-Mycogen. However, long-time observers of the farm seed business shouldn’t be surprised since seed company mergers are nothing new. You don’t have to have grey hair to remember the Dupont’s purchase of Pioneer, nor Monsanto acquiring several national and regional seed companies. Look at some of the old seed company names–Taylor-Evans, Beachley-Hardy, Northrup-King, etc.–suggests that mergers have been going on for about as long as the farm seed business itself.
Some folks worry that a Dupont-Dow merger will reduce the competitiveness of the field crop seed business. While this may happen, the companies have to report to shareholders whose focus is the bottom line and what needs to be done to protect or improve it. Many years ago an old seed company executive told me that the field crop seed business has never been a high-profit one. For instance, the price of seed corn is moderated in part because not only are there a handful of big, multinational seed companies selling farm seeds, but many regional seed companies as well. Invent a new drug to control cholesterol–such as Lipitor–and the potential profits are huge, at least as long as the patent is in force. But if a seed company releases a new corn hybrid it may be competing with a dozen seed companies large and small offering hybrids with similar performance. Nobody makes a “killing” in the seed business: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
So, bacon and other processed meats have been declared by the World Health Organization to be carcinogenic, in the same class as cigarettes and asbestos. What some of the reports haven’t mentioned is that 99.9% of the products that the WHO has investigated as potential carcinogens have been determined (by the WHO, anyway) as carcinogenic. So your morning strip of bacon and ham sandwich has plenty of company, along with paint and the air in even a modest metropolitan area. But it’s useful to look at the likelihood of processed meats causing cancer: According to the WHO, about one in every 2400 cancer deaths can be attributed to diets that are high in processed meats. If you don’t eat processed meat every day, the numbers are even less worrisome.
Another point most reports neglected to mention is that WHO’s conclusion was anything but unanimous: The organization likes to have its findings unanimous, but in this case there were a significant number of scientists on the committee that looked at the same data and didn’t detect a connection. Even more specious is the declaration that red meat is “probably carcinogenic”. It may be good at this point to remember that at one time eggs were so high in cholesterol that folks who had eggs for breakfast more than rarely should start making plans for their heart bypass surgery, and that whole milk and butter were similarly harmful—use low fat dairy products and margarine. They were wrong about those, and perhaps are wrong about meat. So eat, drink and be merry.
They say it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Perhaps, but there are risks. While on a 4-day golfing trip to Myrtle Beach with a bunch of buddies, a friend decided to buy a new set of irons. After doing so he called his wife with the news, with a bit of trepidation about her reaction since they hadn’t discussed the purchase. But she didn’t say much, which gave him a feeling of relief.
It shouldn’t have; when he arrived home he discovered that his wife had completely refurnished their livingroom, and while his new set of irons weren’t cheap they were trivial compared to the cost of the furniture!
It’s not quite the same, but over the years I’ve had farmers call me, asking “What would happen if ______.” with the end of the sentence usually some foolhardy or ill-advised crop practice. I’d tell them they absolutely should not do it, at which time they’d fess up that they already had. This includes drilling oats in a field that the previous year had received five pounds of atrazine per acre (five times what he should have used), and spraying a new alfalfa seeding with 2,4-D, an application that was, is, and probably always will be off-label. So in a way they were hoping for permission after the fact, and when this wasn’t forthcoming, seeking forgiveness. (“I forgot how much atrazine I used last year.” “Gee, I’ve used 2,4-D on alfalfa seedings before and while it curled the seedlings up it never killed them.”)
Words to the wise: If it doesn’t seem like a good idea it probably isn’t, and when it comes to questionable cropping practices it’s wise to look before you leap.
This has nothing to do with crops or even agriculture, mostly about mysterious happenings that I can only partly understand. I’m not a believer in ghosts, extraterrestrials or other supernatural stuff, but sometimes…
First was the mystery of the wave action in my toilet bowl whenever the wind was blowing. Being a guy I spend a certain amount of time each day standing in front of the bowl, (lid up of course) peering in to assure acceptable trajectory and aim. (I try to remember to put the lid down afterwards and almost always succeed, since the few times I did’t resulted in unfortunate incidents with the other resident of the household). Anyway, I asked a certain e-list why there were small but discernible waves, and was told that it was because of the pressure differential as the wind blew across the top of the standpipe. Now this sounded like a perfectly logical explanation until I considered that the hole in the standpipe is no more than 2″ in diameter, and a 10 mph wind blowing across it would seem to have very little impact on several gallons of water 20 feet below (we have a 3-story house so the top of the pipe is WAY up there). So while the answer may be technically correct, it strains credulity.
The second happened this week. We have an indoor-outdoor thermometer in our 2nd floor bedroom; a wall clock-thermometer reading the inside temperature and a remote unit that sits outside to measure outside temp. It worked fine last year but this spring when I put the batteries back into both units the outdoor temperature wouldn’t register. I put new batteries in both, even getting so desperate as to read the instructions (I know, hard for an adult male to admit). No dice. So I said the hell with it and removed the batteries from the outdoor remote and set it on my dresser. Over the weekend the batteries in the clock-thermometer died so I installed new batteries and suddenly I had an outdoor temperature measurement! Huh? I first figured that it was reading from the remote unit on an identical unit that we have in our kitchen, but that’s around the corner and down a flight. Then I noticed that the outdoor temperature was slightly different on the two clock-thermometers. Then I thought–gee, maybe our neighbors have one of these little remote units. I did some surreptitious checking and sure enough, strapped to the side of their house was a remote unit! It’s simply amazing that the unit has the power to send a signal down one story, across two yards and through a thick bush. I told my neighbor that when the batteries on his remote die he might see me sneaking into his yard with a couple of replacement batteries. He no longer even uses the thermometer, said he was surprised the batteries were still good. Now I’m not positive that his unit is what’s sending what appears to be accurate temperature readings to my clock-thermometer but it’s the only explanation I have. Other than ghosts, that is.